Monday, January 30, 2012

Making Gold Out Of Dust – Kashan’s Historic Houses

Photo by Shahram Sharif
In 1993, when the head of UNESCO visited the ancient Iranian city of Kashan, he remarked, “Kashani architects were the greatest alchemists of history. They could make gold out of dust.”

He was referring to the grand merchant houses that Kashan is famous for. Built or expanded in the 19th century, these buildings could easily compete with Iran’s finest royal palaces. Most are divided into three main parts: the andaruni (private rooms for the family in residence), biruni (public areas for entertaining guests), and khadameh (servants’ quarters). The houses feature multiple courtyards with sunken gardens and reflecting pools flanked by flowers and fruit trees, porches facing the courtyards where the families could sit on a balmy summer nights and admire the stars, walls richly decorated with carvings of fruit, flowers, birds, and abstract designs, many of them reflecting the merchant’s specialty trade. In some of these houses, stained glass windows send patterns of colored light dancing across marble floors.

The architects of Kashan’s merchant houses knew how to make the best of a harsh desert climate. They built rooms deep into the earth, where the families would move in summer and enjoy natural air conditioning from the wind towers (badgirs – literally, “wind catchers”), which draw in hot air and cool it on the descent below ground. The south-facing rooms on the surface offered comfortable warmth for winter quarters.

Several years ago, on a trip to Kashan, my husband and I toured several of these magnificent houses, many of which now belong to the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization and have been restored.

We started the tour at the Ameri House, the largest of Kashan’s merchant homes. The original structure dates back to the Zand Dynasty (1750–1794), but Agha Ameri, a merchant who dealt in food and household items, rebuilt the house in the 19th century, turning it into a sprawling complex with seven courtyards and 85 rooms. The walls are decorated with carvings of his merchandise: pots, samovars, pears, and grapes.

Ameri House

You enter the house through double wooden doors with the region’s traditional metal knockers on the front. One knocker is rectangular and solid, with intricate, embossed designs. The other is round and hollow without any ornamentation. The solid knocker is intended for male visitors and the round one for women, and each makes a distinctive sound so the residents of the house always knows which gender is knocking at the front door.

In the very heart of Kashan stand two houses that are linked by an underground passage and a common history. The story goes like this: Seyed Hassan Natanzi, a carpet merchant who earned the nickname Boroujerdi through the lively trade he conducted with the town of Boroujerd, approached another carpet dealer, Jafar Tabatabei, with a marriage proposal on behalf of Boroujerdi’s son. Tabatabei had no objection to the match. But he did have one condition – that Boroujerdi build the bride a house as lovely as the one she grew up in.

When a father sets such a condition, what he really means is, “build a bigger and better one.” Apparently Boroujerdi understood this subtext very well because, starting in 1857, it took him eighteen years, 150 workmen, and likely plenty of frayed nerves to build a house for the happy “newlyweds.” I can’t help wondering where the poor little rich girl lived in the meantime. Certainly not in a half-built house with the chaos and noise of construction all around her. Very likely she moved in with the groom’s family and dreamed of the day when she’d be the mistress of her own place.

Boroujerdi House

The distinctive feature of the Boroujerdi House is the design of its wind towers, which are hexagonal instead of the usual square shape. A reception hall at one end of the main courtyard features stalactite-shaped moldings and frescoes by Kamal-e Molk, the most famous Iranian artist of the time.
The Tabatabei House has four major courtyards with fountains and pools at the center, domed ceilings with skylights that reflect sunlight onto richly decorated walls, and entire banks of stained glass windows in patterns of red, blue, and green. Carvings on the walls depict floral sprays, cypress trees, and diamond-shaped designs typical of a Persian carpet. Agha Boroujerdi had his work cut out to top this palatial home.

Tabatabei House
Photo by Matthias Blume

We visited Kashan during Ramadan, and arrived at the Tabatabei House just before dusk. A crew of men and women were preparing iftar, the meal that breaks the day’s fast, and were busy setting out plates of flat bread, cheese, herbs, walnuts, and dates.

The crew told us that they were getting ready to welcome a group of children who were to attend a ceremony celebrating the revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed (which is what Ramadan is all about). With true Iranian hospitality, they offered us zoolbia, a date-syrup-drenched pastry that is a typical Ramadan treat.

Preparing for iftar

That evening, we drove away from Kashan with stories of brides and carpet merchants in our heads, the visions of secret gardens and towering badgirs before our eyes, and the sweet taste of dates on our tongues.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

In The Service of A King

My grandfather and father
By Supriya Savkoor

Unlike my cohorts here on the blog, I don’t have any ancestors who sailed the Spanish Armada, no Viking blood or uncles who were Communist spies (that I know of), definitely no one who was around during the American Gold Rush partying with Calamity Jane. However, there was this one maharaja…

But let me start at the beginning. You see, I had a much beloved grandfather known to everyone as the family storyteller. His old yarns filled me in particular, since I grew up outside India, with awe. If nothing else, his memories of the past shaped as much of my insights into my Indian heritage as did my occasional childhood visits to the bustling metropolis known as Bombay where he lived.

Where does my grandfather’s story start? Or maybe I should ask, where does my story start? Because although he was one of four grandparents, through him, I know my lineage on his side the best.

My grandfather, named Gopal after one of Lord Krishna’s many names, was born in Bangalore during a historical renaissance in that region, generations before the South Indian city became the illustrious capital of call centers and outsourcing. Even then, in the early 1900s, Bangalore was a hotbed of progress, in part because of its distinction as a twin city.

On the Cantonment side lived and worked the British and the affluent Tamilians (whom the Brits called the “Tamils”), both groups associated in one way or another with British India’s military or government administration. On the other side of town, in “Bangalore City,” lived everyone else – including my then-young great grandfather, Devrao Nayal.

My great grandfather (Devrao)
Devrao had left his sleepy village on the state’s southwestern coast, where his father was a zaminder (landowner/landlord) and the only other profession was farming, to seek his fortune in what was then the big city. Thirty years later, his own restless son, my grandfather, would leave Bangalore to seek fame and fortune in the even bigger and certainly more glamorous city of Bombay. But when Devrao moved to Bangalore City in the early 1900s, it was still part of the princely kingdom of Mysore. Its monarch, Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV, lived a few hours away in the city of Mysore, but his dewan, or prime minister, oversaw the state's administration from Bangalore. And the lucky chap to become the dewan’s personal assistant? None other than Devrao himself.

Surprisingly, I don’t know much about what his job entailed or how often, if ever, he met the king, but Devrao’s life was a heady mix of old and new during a time of some serious history making. The city experienced a renaissance under the reign of Wodiyar IV, a benevolent philosopher-king. It became known as the Golden Age of Mysore, from roughly the end of  the 1800s into the first few decades of the 20th century, and during my great grandfather’s tenure.

Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV
Under Wodiyar, the state of Mysore became India’s most modern, progressive state. The young king blazed trails on all fronts  – the arts, education, agriculture, industry, you name it. He expanded the country’s first democratic legislative assembly and made it bicameral, with an upper and lower house, paving the way for India becoming the world’s largest democracy. Five years before my grandfather’s birth, Bangalore became the first Indian city to have electricity. The king established the country’s first hydroelectric plant and installed its first streetlights. He also established the first state-chartered universities, and historians say Wodiyar laid down the educational framework that paved the way for Bangalore to become the major technology hub it is today. His love of classical music led him to pipe the music through a public address system on the palace grounds so that the public could enjoy it too.

As a side note, the British, of course, brought change too. They paved roads, improved sanitation, built hospitals, and so on. Christian missionaries brought the first printing presses to print bibles in the local language of Kannada. Those changes mostly benefited the elite on the Cantonment side of town, but they also created a few opportunities for the city-dwellers. Kannada history books and literature flourished, for example, and many modern Kannada classics hail from this period. Devrao made his own contribution, albeit minor. He created Kannada shorthand and published a small manual on it for the state legislative assembly (the lower house).

But back to Wodiyar… under his reign, the list of accomplishments, political and cultural, goes on and on, and his legacy reflects it. One British lord called Mysore “the best-administered state in the world,” while that saint of all saints, Mahatma Gandhi, an occasional guest of the king, called his friend Rajarshi, “the saintly king.”

Karnataka High Court
Did my great grandfather know him? I don’t know for certain, but I imagine he had to have rubbed elbows with him from time to time. Although the king occasionally went to stay at the Bangalore Palace, which oddly falls within the Cantonment area, Devrao went to work each day at the regal, rust-colored building known as Attara Kacheri, “the eighteen offices,” on the city side of town. After Mysore state officially changed its name to Karnataka in 1973, Attara Kacheri became the state’s new High Court, sitting directly opposite that Legislative Assembly Wodiyar created. Only a few decades later, India would become an independent nation, and all the political machinations making that happen were in full swing in Devrao’s day.

Back in those heady early years of the 20th century, when he worked for a monarchy creating democratic institutions, pulling India into the modern era and hurtling toward Independence, what massive, whirlwind changes did he witness – possibly even participate in? Could any of the king’s accomplishments have been recommendations that came from the young, ambitious Devrao?

It gives me shivers just to imagine it and, frankly, I get the shivers every time I’m in Bangalore and pass that awe-inspiring High Court, the grand legislature across the street from it, the street itself lined with majestic Asoka and blooming Mayflower trees. Someday, I’ll make it inside and search for clues of my great grandfather’s own personal thumbprint on history.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Off The Beaten Track -- David Townsend, Photographer

This week's Off The Beaten Track contributor is David Townsend, a professional photographer from Denver, Colorado. A self-taught photographer, David's journey started fifteen years ago when he captured the beauty of nature and landscapes in his home state.  He later became an accomplished portrait photographer and master of the digital darkroom.  Portrait photography eventually led him into photographing weddings, and now he and his wife, Lynn, own David Lynn Photography, a thriving wedding and portrait photography business.  David also teaches his skills to new and aspiring photographers with his Shootshops Photography Workshops. Travel and photography have always remained David’s true passions, and he takes every opportunity to combine these whenever possible.

David’s travels have taken him all over the United States, and to three other continents and fifteen countries: Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina, Italy, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

 Next week David will return and take us on a photographic journey to South East Asia.

Life is an adventure.

I've ridden my bike at 20mph, steering with one hand and firing off shots with the other.  I've strapped a camera to my ski helmet.  I've drowned a camera 40 feet underwater in Belize.  I like going and being everywhere with a camera.  That's where my life is, that's where my fun is, and that's where the photo opportunities are.

There are plenty of times I don't have a camera with me, and it always allows me to sink fully into the experience.  Even then, my mind's eye is firing away.

I know it sounds a little clichéd, but the simple fact is that beauty is everywhere.  Nothing makes me see that more than photography, and recognizing it has become such a part of my everyday life that I don't even think about it anymore.  I just see it -- in the plain, ordinary and everyday.  It's a simple concept, and when you get it into your consciousness things don't seem so ordinary anymore.  It's all about perspective... lying on the ground in the middle of the woods, a meadow, a street, or in front of a bride and groom with my camera and seeing the world from inches high.... getting up close and personal with things I'd otherwise walk by... then creating art from it. That totally does it for me, and is one of a million reasons why I love to shoot.

The images below can also be found at ~ world galleries

I had the great opportunity to take a two-week overland safari through South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia. We drove caravan-style with Land Rovers equipped with rooftop tents, visiting National Parks and Game Reserves to experience the wildlife of southern Africa.

TIP:  a tripod is essential piece of equipment for night photography.  It allows you to keep the camera perfectly still and create long exposures.

We spent one day and night at a lion rescue camp in Botswana, and we had a chance to get up close and personal with these amazing animals.  These images capture both the intense and majestic nature of the lion.

TIP: Especially on safari, a telephoto zoom lens is essential to get close to your subject.  It allows you to exclude things that are unnecessary to your image.

We spotted a pride of lions taking their afternoon nap on a grassy hill on the savannah, and we moved in to see how close we could get to the resting pride. This female stood watch as I was able to get a few shots from about 100 feet away.

TIP: Placing your subject slightly off-center in your image creates a little more dramatic feel to your image.

The giraffe is one of the most unique animals in the world, and it is a rare experience to see these animals in the wild.  With these two images I tried to create the very zen-like feel that these animals convey.

TIP:  Use environmental features to add another graphic element to your image, or look for particular patterns, shapes, or (in this case) alignments that add an interesting perspective.

The zebras were always found in herds, often with a group of ostriches nearby (they help the Zebras search for predators with their keen eyesight.)  I caught the attention of this lone zebra while moving around the vehicle.  He turned and faced me and created the perfect image for me to capture.

TIP:  Keep it simple.  This image is very straightforward, linear, and symmetrical, all adding to the overall artistic look.

The elephants were always fascinating to watch for hours, and we spent a long time observing their playful nature and dedication to the family unit.

TIP:  When photographing animals, look for interactions, as those images are not as common as just a solitary animal standing and doing nothing.

The hippos are notorious for being the most dangerous animal on the continent, but when we visited a watering hole with 30-40 hippos, they were doing what they do best…relaxing.  Every once in a while they would all erupt in what sounded like a group of old men laughing together over a glass of brandy.

TIP:  Use a foreground element to add a dynamic feel.  I shot this image through the grasses to give a sense of place while still maintaining focus on the hippo.

Some of the smaller monkeys around the game parks and reserves have developed a bad (human-inspired) habit of raiding campsites for food.  We even witnessed a giant baboon climb inside one of our trucks and steal a 5-pound bag of potatoes.  Although annoying, it did afford some great photo opportunities, like this one.

TIP: Shooting images with low aperture settings (f/2.8, f/3.5, etc) gives you shallow depth of field and soft blurred backgrounds, letting your subject stand out.

This image of a red hartebeest is a more iconic image, with the lone silhouette of the animal surrounded by the expanse of the African savannah.  I found myself absolutely awestruck at the simple beauty of the savannah and other parts of southern Africa.

TIP:  Use a wider angle lens to include parts of the environment to give a sense of place and perspective. 

This is how you transport vehicles across the mighty Zambezi River from Botswana into Zambia.  We went over to visit Victoria Falls and it was amazing.  Footnote: a couple months after returning home, I read that one of these ferries capsized, killing multiple people.  Wow.

TIP:  Always be on the lookout for interesting perspectives from which to photograph.  Shoot from down on the ground or, if possible, from up above your subject.

The Baobab Trees of southern Africa range in diameter seven to eleven meters, and reach a height of 30 meters. Carbon dating has found some baobab trees to be over 2,000 years old.

TIP:  Sunrise and sunset are the ideal times of day to photograph when the light is softer and warmer.  It creates more dramatic colors and shadows.

The acacia tree is the iconic tree of Africa, and makes for the most interesting images.   There was no shortage of beautiful sunsets while we were there, so I felt compelled to include one.

TIP:  Silhouettes are a classic photographic technique.  Keep it interesting by placing the silhouetted subject off center or in a smaller part of the frame.

Words just can’t describe the enormity of the Salt Flats in Botswana, but if I were to try, it would be the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. Just walking out onto the flats makes one feel completely alone, in a most peaceful way.

TIP:  Use negative space to create an artistic view of what you are photographing.  In this photo, the vehicles are very small and the sky dominates the scene, giving a sense of the salt flat’s vast expanse.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Supriya's Post....

.... will run on Saturday this week.

Happy Wednesday!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Vikings, Secret Handshakes, and Kings – The History of the Sinclairs

In Australia we have a term for dogs that are of mixed breed – “bitsa” (as in bits of this and bits of that). Now, I’m not calling myself a dog, but if anyone looked at my family tree, we could well and truly be classified as bitsas. Norwegian, French, Irish, Welsh, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Scottish… you name a country, chances are my ancestors are from it or tried to conquer it. (Yeah, we have a few bloodthirsty conquerors in our closet).

The Sinclairs hark back to the days of the Vikings in Scandinavia. In 911, Rollo the Viking travelled from Norway to the northwest of France. That same year, in the church of Saint-Clair-sur-l'Epte, he signed a treaty with King Charles III the Simple of France to grant him the position of Count of Rouen. Let me just say, the powers of persuasion in my family are second to none. Rollo the Viking’s descendants became the dukes and duchy of Normandy.

The origins of the surname Sinclair comes from the church where the treaty was signed and in 1162, some family members settled in Scotland when Henry de St Clair of Roslin took over the lands in the north-west province of Lothian. A few generations later, Sir Henry Sinclair fought at the Battle of Bannockburn and in 1320 signed the Declaration of Arbroath that he, along with other influential men, sent to the Pope to initiate Scotland’s independence from England.

We liked to hang out with royalty (as opposed to being hung by royalty), especially with those from France, England and Scotland (perhaps that has trickled down to my young daughter who is obsessed with princesses). We also became earls in Orkney and Caithness in Scotland and have been involved in bloody battles such as the Battle of Hastings in England as part of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. We won, by the way. If I listed all the battles my family were involved with, we’d be here most of the day…

The Rosslyn Castle, situated seven miles (11 kilometres) south of Edinburgh, has been home to the Sinclairs since 1070 and still have in the family today. In 1115, the Sinclairs were involved with a group of knights who patrolled the roads during the Crusades to keep them safe. They became known as the Poor Knights of Christ, and later, King Baldwin II of Jerusalem granted them use of the old Temple of Solomon as their meeting place. The Poor Knights of Christ changed their name to the Knights Templar and so began the legend of a mysterious organisation that many believe launched the group we know today as the Freemasons.

Scotland is dotted with many remnants of our history, the most impressive one being Rosslyn Chapel (not to be confused with the castle of the same name) in Roslin. Built in 1446 by William Sinclair, the elaborate stone carvings are often referred to as “Bible in Stone.” Quite a few Sinclairs are buried there, fully clad in their suits of armour.

As with most family histories, not all the facts are available now, yet we do know that when the Scottish Sinclairs arrived in North America, most were illiterate, and so when asked by the census clerks how to spell their surname, they didn’t know how. Their thick Scottish accents also made it difficult to be understood, so many more variations of the surname were invented – Sinclere, Sinkler, Sinklaire and so forth.

Within half a century of arriving in North America, most clan members had changed their surname back to the correct spelling aside from a few who have remained Sinkler to this day. 

On my mother's side we were involved with the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Waterloo, so if you haven’t got the hint yet, don’t mess with my family or me – we know people.

I don’t know about you, but I find it fascinating to learn about family history. I think there are some legacies in our bloodlines that carry on through the generations.  Every time I hear Scottish bagpipes and drummers, I get shivers and feel the music pump through my veins, yet I’ve never set foot in the country. I’ve not invaded any countries or joined any secret organisations (yet), but my family’s history lives inside me. I’m a product of my ancestors, and they’re a part of me. I reckon that’s kinda cool. By the way, you may now refer to me as Countess Sinclair.

How about you? Have you ever looked into your family history? What did you discover?

Monday, January 23, 2012

My Uncle, Klaus Fuchs - Beyond The Cold War

Klaus Fuchs after his release from prison
Early in the morning of July 16, 1945, before dawn crept over the horizon, a group of scientists stood at one of three observation points on the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in the New Mexico desert and waited for the Trinity test to begin. The explosion came at 5:29 a.m., when a nuclear device, dubbed simply “The Gadget,” detonated and shot a mushroom cloud into the air. The sky turned purple, then green and finally white. Three weeks later, on August 6, the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, destroying half the city and killing an estimated 42,000 to 93,000 inhabitants (totaling more than 150,000 over a period of four months). A second bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9, leaving another 70,000 people dead. The Atomic Age had begun.

One of the scientists who witnessed that first nuclear detonation in the New Mexico desert was Klaus Fuchs, a young theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, the American-led nuclear weapons development program, from 1944 to 1946. A German-born, naturalized British citizen, Klaus had been active in the Communist Party while a student at Kiel University in Germany but fled in 1933 after the National Socialists (Nazis) burned the Parliament building, blamed it on the Communists, and turned Party members into hunted criminals.

Over a period of nearly ten years, starting even before he worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Klaus passed classified information to the Soviet Union through Russian agents: a woman in England code-named “Sonja” and a courier in the United States whom Klaus knew only as “Raymond.” Later, after the affair was uncovered, “Sonja” turned out to be an operative of the Soviet military intelligence service (GRU) named Ursula Kuczynski (also known as Ruth Werner), while “Raymond” was identified as a chemist named Harry Gold. Kuczynski was never captured, but Gold served 15 years of a 30-year sentence.

Klaus at age 14
Klaus evaded detection for three years after his return to England, where he resumed work on the British nuclear weapons program as well as civilian projects (and continued to pass secret information to the Russians). But after U.S. military intelligence agents decrypted Soviet cables in which Klaus's name appeared, he came under scrutiny and eventually confessed his activities. He was convicted of espionage in a trial that lasted only 90 minutes and sentenced to 14 years in prison, the maximum punishment at the time for passing classified information to a friendly government (after all, the Soviet Union was a U.S. and British ally during and after the war). You can read the statement he made to an MI5 agent here. He served nine years, with an early release in 1959 for good behavior.

Klaus Fuchs has been called many things. Traitor. Disloyal to friends and colleagues. Atom Spy. To me, he was always just Uncle Klaus, my mother’s older brother.

When I tell people I am related to a man often considered the most notorious spy of the Atomic Age, people inevitably want to know what my uncle revealed to me about his years passing secrets to the Russians. It’s a reasonable question. After all, as his niece, a person he trusted and who hadn’t even been a twinkle in her mother’s eye at the time all those events went down, wouldn’t he tell me things that weren’t part of the public record?

I hate to disappoint, but we never did talk about it much. And he didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already heard many times from my mother. Only that it was a decision he didn’t make lightly or without considering the consequences. That he deeply regretted deceiving his close friends, people who trusted him implicitly. That he didn’t think he had any choice in the matter, not without compromising his conscience. Which is why he returned the Soviets’ cash-filled envelopes without ever opening them.

It wasn't money or greed that drove Klaus to lead a double life of dedicated scientist and Soviet informant. He sincerely believed that Communism would pave the way for a better, new world, and he felt the Russians should know what their British and American allies were up to. More importantly, he thought that if the world’s two superpowers both had a nuclear bomb, neither was likely to use it – fear of mutually assured destruction would act as a deterrent to global annihilation.

Klaus and his sister, Christel
(my mother)
The truth is, I’ve always been much more interested in Uncle Klaus, the man, than in “Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy.” As a child, I occasionally traveled with my parents and sister to East Germany, where Klaus had settled right after his release from prison. During those visits, he always seemed a bit enigmatic to me, tall and silent, smiling and affectionate but never saying much. He left the conversation up to his wife, my Aunt Grete, the much chattier of the pair.

Years later, in the early 1980s, when I was a student at Leipzig University (or Karl-Marx Universität, as it was called at the time), I’d take the train to Dresden on weekends and wander up the pedestrian zone from the station to where Klaus and Grete lived on Alt Markt. On such trips, I’d pass the ruins of the Frauenkirche, an 18th-century church that had been bombed in the war and left a pile of rubble as a monument, and wonder how my uncle could live so close to such an unavoidable reminder of war, its destructive power, and all he’d experienced. But I never did ask him that question.

Instead, I got him to talk about his life as a child with my mother and their two older siblings, Gerhard and Elisabeth, in Eisenach before the war. Perhaps I wanted corroboration of the stories my mother had told me all my life. Or I sought another perspective, the overlapping yet divergent memories of siblings growing up in the same time, place, and family.

I’d heard how Klaus taught my mother to read when she was just five, and he not yet seven. (He didn’t remember that.) How they’d climb the tree outside their house, with part of its trunk bent horizontally, and pretend it was a horse they’d ride across the countryside. (He remembered it being a camel.) How he’d kept white mice as pets and taught them tricks. (His version was that he built them running wheels and mazes to play in.) The one story he recalled just the way she’d told it to me was how he’d hide a pair of his trousers in a closet so she could put them on, sneak out the window and run off with him to climb trees without their mother being able to stop her daughter’s tomboy adventures and scold her for unladylike behavior.

Me on the "horse" tree in Eisenach
After I graduated from Leipzig University in 1983, I never saw my uncle again. He died five years later, in January 1988. His passing merited a few seconds on the six o’clock evening news, barely enough time for his picture to flash across my TV screen. It’s odd to see your uncle on the news, even for such a brief moment, but mainly I felt sad to witness his long life, spanning a period of 76 years, reduced to his most publicly sensational decade.

I understand the historic significance of his actions in passing classified information to the Soviets, and yet it annoys me that the spy story overshadows his other accomplishments: the fact that he was a brilliant scientist who made significant contributions to his field, qualities that got him assigned to the Manhattan Project in the first place. After all, Klaus’s work continued for two more decades after he moved to Dresden, where he became the deputy director of the Institute for Nuclear Research in nearby Rossendorf, working on peaceful applications of nuclear technology and reactor safety, and devoted himself to promoting nuclear disarmament.

It makes perfect sense to me that Uncle Klaus, who always lived life according to the dictates of his conscience, ended up working for peace.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Interrobangs in My Heart: Visiting South Africa

Estelle Jobson has more than a dozen years of experience in book publishing as well as a master's degree in publishing from New York University, where she attended on a Fulbright. She has done just about everything you can do with a book, except eat it. Estelle, who is South African, speaks five languages and has lived in as many countries. She has just moved to Geneva with her partner, a dishy Italian diplomat, and from where she writes travel narratives, records audiobooks, does yoga, knits adorable hats for charity, and takes empowering naps. She is active on the board of two international associations, promoting women's health and childfree by choice. 
As a born-and-bred South African now living abroad, every visit home for me is a bit like Christmas Eve for a child. My heart thrums with interrobangs (a punctuation mark superimposing an exclamation mark over a question mark), with a mixture of anticipation at what is to come (?) and excitement at the prospect of surprises (!) jostling with apprehension that I will be sorely disappointed (?!). I disembark from the plane, pounding with interrobangs.

Home! “Please let things be on the up and better than last time,” I pray to the god of small things. “Less crime, fewer kids on the street, more in school. More jobs, fewer HIV-deaths, less corruption. Oh, and less carnage on the roads?”

South African democracy is built largely on the Freedom Charter. In 1955, a collaborative organization, which was the precursor to the African National Congress (ANC) sent 50,000 people out to collect, via vox pop, the “freedom demands” of ordinary South Africans. The charter then summarized the rights expressed in a kind of manifesto: basic rights, such as work and housing for all, and forward-looking ones, including, “Slums shall be demolished, and new suburbs built where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, creches [day care centers] and social centers,” “free medical care and hospitalization,” “equal pay for work” and “maternity leave on full pay for all working mothers.” Don’t forget, this was 1955, the year that “Rock Around the Clock” hit the charts and bobby socks were hot.

I really want Mandela and his freedom fighters to get their happy ending. I have read their book. In fact, I grew up during apartheid and have just about disemboweled myself in giving my guts, time, and income to various causes. It was only 22 years ago that, in my final year of high school, the ANC was unbanned. I long to see all the admirable goals of its Freedom Charter, chanted for decades by activists, made real in my country. No less, I yearn to see all the taxes, garnered from the sweat of my brow, well spent, spent on empowering the downtrodden. On causes other than things like the ANC Party hosting swanky golf tournaments, as they just did in celebration of their 100th anniversary of January 7, 2012.

Yes. The ANC Party just celebrated their birthday with an almighty, star-studded, $12-million bash and golf tournament. “Golf?!” I splutter, my outraged punctuation mark agitating both its fists. “Are they kidding?!”

Railway Line Toward Kalk Bay
The ANC Party is not exactly the government, so they can tee-off as and when they please, because it’s not quite taxes they’re spending. Furthermore, according to their spokesperson, golf was once an exclusive, whites-only sport and it’s a perfectly good one. We should, he declares, have golf courses all over our sunny country. Indeed, the Freedom Charter reads: “Rest, leisure and recreation shall be the right of all.” This warm-and-fuzzy notion about golf courses for all makes me curious about how many of those legitimate rights demanded in the Freedom Charter are really accessible to citizens now.

On my last trip home, I spent some time in Kalk Bay, a fishing harbor of Cape Town. There is a scenic strip of a shopping and dining street squeezed between mountains on one side and, a railway track running almost directly above the rocks that give way to the crashing waves on the other. Along the Main Road lie cafes, bars, quirky design and antique shops to trawl through, and an independent bookshop. It’s the perfect place for the bo-ho chic, urban tourist, treasure-hunter and coffee-shop intellectual.

Word Art on Pavement
It was on the street corner, outside the famous Olympia Deli that I met a pair of local African wire artists, doing a brisk trade in free speech. The pavement was decorated with handmade wire art, cursive words fabricated simply with a pair of pliers and wire, some of which is colored with narrow strips of recycled soda cans finely wrapped around it. Words were laid out on the tarmac in happily jumbled poetry: life, faith, dream, capetown, hope, trust, joy. And believe. That one grabbed me. As the dreadlocked businessmen offer their customers the option to customize their purchases, I commissioned them to make me a handful. They got me to pencil my words in capital letters in their notebook, in the spelling I desired: believe, normal spelling, four times, please. 

When I flew back to my other home, I took with me a bouquet of artisanal words. The Freedom Charter states: “All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas, and contact with other lands.” Accordingly, I offered these artworks as thank-you gifts to non-South Africans, explaining their origin.

In my dreams, I commission the artists to adorn all the cities of South Africa with slogans from the charter in wire-art words. The ANC Party pays for this, naturally, with the golf money. The next time I go home to South Africa, I will ask the artists to kindly make me some different words: freedom, charter, and interrobang.


Video about Freedom Charter

Read about the ANC centenary celebrations online here

Read about the fight for freedom of speech in South Africa here 

Rift Valley Reflections is a blog that portrays the inner-city suburbs of Johannesburg, with intimate, fascinating and moving interviews, histories and profiles of South Africans and others from across the continent.